Is a G-rated ‘Carmen’ still ‘Carmen’?
For all its efforts to connect with Hollywood, Los Angeles Opera revived a 4-year-old production of “Carmen” on Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that no self-respecting film studio honcho would greenlight. Where’s the sex?
That’s a question, moreover, that would be asked not only in Hollywood. My local Blockbuster never seems able to keep on its shelves the recent DVD release of a 2003 Spanish film adaptation of the Prosper Mérimée story that inspired Bizet’s opera. But pasted over “Based on Bizet’s Wildly Popular Opera” on the DVD cover of this “Carmen” is Blockbuster’s selling point: a youth restricted label. Paz Vega, the steamy star, undresses.
L.A. Opera’s “Carmen” is, on the Eurotrash scale (1 being chaste, 10 the opposite), maybe a 3.5. Double that at minimum for the typical “Carmen” these days on the Continent.
Even so, a “Carmen” without heat can still be “Carmen.” Enter Viktoria Vizin, a young Hungarian mezzo-soprano making her debut with the company. She is lithe. She lifted her skirt now and then on cue, looking as though she was lifting her skirt on cue. Perhaps if otherwise directed, she could steam up the stage. After all, she says in an interview on an L.A. Opera podcast that she learned a thing or two from Vega in the film.
The mezzo wasn’t otherwise directed in a production originally by Emilio Sagi and now revived by Javier Ulacia. Carmen enters upstage, not standing out among the cigarette factory girls. Vizin does not have a large voice and, singing her Habanera lost in the upstage crowd, she seemed and sounded unseductive and distant.
She is not, here, a magnetic Carmen, let alone a dangerous flirt. But vocally, Vizin is a rare, real and very centered Carmen. Hers is the sultry mezzo Bizet wrote for.
And she also turned the smallness of her sound (small but hardly tiny) to advantage. Having to strain a little to hear her, especially in the Pavilion, can be a good thing, focusing attention. She phrases like a singer of chansons. She has a deliberate style, careful with pitch, rhythm and text. She is able to vocally convey meaning between the lines of the libretto.
Passion could be awakened in this temptress, although it took time to overtake her self-possession.
Otherwise, the L.A. Opera production is notable for its musical efficiency and sloppy staging. Emmanuel Villaume competently moved things along. The French conductor alternated between aggression and offhandedness, but he did take pains to achieve supple playing from the orchestra. The entr’actes were lovely.
Marcus Haddock proved a reliable Don José, stiff as a soldier most of the time. Genia Kühmeier, as Micaëla, brought a measure of sweetness and cream. As Escamillo, Raymond Aceto sang to the crowd (in the audience, not the crowd on the stage), but what’s a toreador to do when dressed like a nightclub entertainer and also asked to execute a few old Vegas moves?
Both the L.A. Opera and the L.A. Children’s choruses managed to sing well even when they looked quite confused. Fight scenes were phony. Gerardo Trotti’s set of Seville reminded me of the Mediterranean corner of Rodeo Drive.
Jesús del Pozo’s costumes, which were made a decade ago for a production in Madrid, revealed how quickly styles date, especially when you try too hard to be hip. Color coding meant a mostly white first act and a gray third.
Nuria Castejón was the choreographer responsible for much foot-stomping.
What with all this, who could blame the focused Vizin for clinging to her cool? And who could not admire her for remaining a class act?
The cast will change Dec. 6 for the final three performances.
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